By Michael W. Harris
Warning: Spoilers lie ahead. Just go see the movie first and then return to ponder its meaning with me.
Twice now in one week have I not fallen asleep until 2AM or later. The first was Tuesday night while still in shock from both the election and my ill-advised whiskey toast to the end of the American experiment. I should really never drink whiskey. Nothing good comes from whiskey.
The second time was Saturday night after seeing Arrival, the new film from Denis Villeneuve. I had only recently seen any of Villeneuve’s films, having watched Sicario about a month ago, though I had wanted to see Arrival since I had seen the first trailer.
It looked intriguing and most importantly seemed positioned to be a good thinking person’s science fiction film. One that asks big questions, and also asks more than it answers.
To me, this last part is an important quality of good science fiction. I want to leave the theatre quiet and turning over what I just saw. And while I want to talk about things when I see such a film, I usually need time to actually collect my thoughts in order to be ready to discuss it.
Which is why I didn’t fall asleep until 2AM after seeing Arrival. I was taking notes, jotting down questions and musings. And I also started reading Ted Chiang’s “Story of Your Life,” upon which Arrival is based. Though I didn’t finish it until the next day because sleep overtook me.
It is hard to really describe the plot of Arrival in such a way that what I believe to be the dominant theme of the film, the nature of causality and choice, is brought out. On the surface, Arrival is about first contact with aliens and the challenges we, as humans, would face with trying to communicate with aliens. But the plot is really about the nature of how we perceive time and causality and along the way digs into the question of free will vs. determinism. It challenges us to think about our lives differently, and if we would make the same choices knowing their outcomes. That is, if we could actually make a different choice.
Really, the best way I can think of describing the differences between how we humans perceive time and how the heptapods (the aliens in the film) perceive it has already been summarized brilliantly by another classic, albeit more comedic, piece of science fiction:
And Doctor Who even has a similar conceit that time is fixed. Sure you could change little things, but the major course of action is set, and if you do mess with it, especially interfere in your own timeline, they you might just break time itself.
In Arrival we see what the audience might assume are flashbacks of the lead character of Louise Banks, played brilliantly by Amy Adams, thinking about her now dead daughter. But instead they are actually flash-forwards. There are little clues to this, such as how Amy Adams does not appear to be younger in the scenes with her daughter than in the scenes of the movie’s “present.” I put present in quotes because I am pretty sure that the film, like the short story, is told in sort of simultaneous flashbacks and flash-forwards. The actual “present” is the moment that Louise agrees to try and have a child with Ian, played by Jeremy Renner. In that moment, she sets herself on the path that she will know only in her divorce from Ian and her daughter’s early death—in this film this is from some rare, unspecified disease and in the book it is from a climbing accident.
And this gets to the question I believe is at the heart of this film: if we were to know our future would we still make the same choices? Could we actually make different choices? What is the nature of temporality in the universe? Does time’s arrow only point in one direction, or is that just how humans perceive it?
The short story actually answers these question with some certainty, going into depth on how the heptapods and humans fundamentally perceive the universe in different ways and how that changes how their language works.
The most illuminating passages, as to the nature of perception of temporality, comes on pages 133-134 (in my Kindle version):
“Consider the sentence “The rabbit is ready to eat.” Interpret “rabbit” to be the object of “eat,” and the sentence was an announcement that dinner would be served shortly. Interpret “rabbit” to be the subject of “eat,” and it was a hint, such as a young girl might give her mother so she’ll open a bag of Purina Bunny Chow. Two very different utterances; in fact, they were probably mutually exclusive within a single household. Yet either was a valid interpretation; only context could determine what the sentence meant.
Consider the phenomenon of light hitting water at one angle, and traveling through it at a different angle. Explain it by saying that a difference in the index of refraction caused the light to change direction, and one saw the world as humans saw it. Explain it by saying that light minimized the time needed to travel to its destination, and one saw the world as the heptapods saw it. Two very different interpretations.
The physical universe was a language with a perfectly ambiguous grammar. Every physical event was an utterance that could be parsed in two entirely different ways, one causal and the other teleological, both valid, neither one disqualifiable no matter how much context was available.
When the ancestors of humans and heptapods first acquired the spark of consciousness, they both perceived the same physical world, but they parsed their perceptions differently; the worldviews that ultimately arose were the end result of that divergence. Humans had developed a sequential mode of awareness, while heptapods had developed a simultaneous mode of awareness. We experienced events in an order, and perceived their relationship as cause and effect. They experienced all events at once, and perceived a purpose underlying them all. A minimizing, maximizing purpose.”
Chiang, Ted. Stories of Your Life and Others (pp. 133-134). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
To me, the key moment in the film comes when Louise is getting into a truck and says, “I know why my husband left me,” to the person who will become that husband. She knows that he left her when she revealed that their daughter would die and that she knew all along. Which is something that is never said in the short story. But it is in this moment, when she realizes both the nature of time as it exists to the heptapods and how she can also now perceive it because of her learning their language—which is based upon linguistic relativity, something I had never heard of—that she accepts her future. She actually makes a sort of choice.
This inevitably leads into the discussion of free-will versus determinism. Do our choices actually matter or are they simply what we were always going to do? This is again something spoken to more clearly in the short story:
“The heptapods are neither free nor bound as we understand those concepts; they don’t act according to their will, nor are they helpless automatons. What distinguishes the heptapods’ mode of awareness is not just that their actions coincide with history’s events; it is also that their motives coincide with history’s purposes. They act to create the future, to enact chronology.
Freedom isn’t an illusion; it’s perfectly real in the context of sequential consciousness. Within the context of simultaneous consciousness, freedom is not meaningful, but neither is coercion; it’s simply a different context, no more or less valid than the other. It’s like that famous optical illusion, the drawing of either an elegant young woman, face turned away from the viewer, or a wart-nosed crone, chin tucked down on her chest. There’s no “correct” interpretation; both are equally valid. But you can’t see both at the same time.
Similarly, knowledge of the future was incompatible with free will. What made it possible for me to exercise freedom of choice also made it impossible for me to know the future. Conversely, now that I know the future, I would never act contrary to that future, including telling others what I know: those who know the future don’t talk about it. Those who’ve read the Book of Ages never admit to it.”
Chiang, Ted. Stories of Your Life and Others (p. 137). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
N.B. – Book of Ages is a reference to a story by Jorge Luis Borges, though I am not sure what story it is referring to.
Put simply, if we embrace the conceit of a deterministic universe as the film and story posit, then our view of free will exists only because we view time as linear. It is because we believe in the exercise of free will that we are blocked from perceiving time as the heptapods do. But there also exists a sort of choice in a deterministic universe: the choice to “act to create the future, to enact chronology.”
But we humans are trapped by our perception of the universe. We are linear beings and can only see time’s arrow pointing in one direction. Though we are increasingly discovering that reality and the universe is much weirder than we can perceive through our limited senses.
Given this, though, does it really matter if we question the nature of time and our reality? What is the point in asking these big questions in our science fiction?
To me, why I love films like Arrival is because it puts me in a thoughtful and reflective place. It shuts down a lot of my external reactions as I sit and ponder. I become much more quiet as I turn over the questions. It forces me to think a lot before speaking. By asking these questions it makes me reconsider my assumptions. Forces me to view things from another perspective. It is the rare film that makes me do that, though a short list of recent films that did evoke this reaction would include: The Tree of Life (Malick, 2011), Cloud Atlas (The Wachowskis and Tom Twyker, 2012), Children of Men (Cuarón, 2006), Moon (Jones, 2009), and Interstellar (Nolan, 2014).
But I know this doesn’t happen to everyone. Some of the friends I saw the film with disputed that the themes of determinism and the nature of time were even the most prominent themes in the film. And I can’t really disagree, it was subtext and not text. The explicit nature that these themes take on in Chiang’s short story are not present in the film. The inner monologue of the story that discusses them never made it into film dialogue, something that I actually loved about the screenplay. The minimalist dialogue, the show don’t tell nature of Villeneuve’s filmmaking, present also in Sicario, is refreshing compared to the tech babble of some other recent sci-fi films—I am looking at you Interstellar. The dialogue, especially between Louise and Ian, seemed much more human to me.
So how does one react when confronted with art that challenges our perception of reality and thus ourselves? We reflect. We consider. We try and empathize and see the universe from this new point of view. And while Arrival might be about one woman’s journey towards literally seeing time in a non-linear fashion, it is also very much about how we humans should work to understand how others may see the same things in a different way—a theme that is made explicit in the film via the international reaction to the heptapods arrival, a subplot which is not present in the short story. But it is also present in how it is a challenge for humans to try and view the universe as the heptapods do. And in the film, failing to do so almost has disastrous consequences.
There is more I could say, especially about the film’s score and sound design, but I feel like I need to see the film again before I can comment on those. For now, I will simply sign off and go back to my thoughtful place.
P.S. – Arrival gives me great hope for Villeneuve as director and Jóhann Jóhannsson as composer for the upcoming Blade Runner sequel. You can see and hear a lot of influence from Blade Runner in both Arrival and Sicario.